As Pokémon Scarlet and Violet reviews hit the internet one day before the twin games are released, the overriding message has a grim tone: the Switch just can’t handle the game. Despite most effusively praising the game itself, few reviews can ignore that the open-world game struggles to run on the five-year-old handheld tech.
While Nintendo did not see fit to allow Kotaku access to review code for Pokémon Scarlet and Violet prior to launch, we’re plugged in enough to have heard rumor of the game’s performance issues before today. Now, with embargoes expired, many major gaming sites are saying it out loud: the game does not perform well at all.
As Metacritic collates today’s reviews, the score is currently at 78. Not a terrible score by any measure, but significantly, it’s the lowest for a Pokémon game in almost two decades, and only out-scoring 2005's Pokémon Emerald. (This is a game series that traditionally scores in the high-80s.) From reading through the published reviews, it seems the damage is mostly due to performance and graphical issues. And it’s worth noting these are reviews of the game with its Day 1 patch installed.
Making Pokémon games cannot possibly be an easy task. With a fixed three-year schedule, there’s no room to slip. Pokémon games always hit every three years, in fall, as part of a far wider schedule involving the TCG, tie-ins, merch, crossovers, and so much else. Since the late ‘90s Game Freak has attempted to create new entries in the franchise that not only give fans a new generation of Pokémon, but also innovate and advance the series. Their success at this has always been questionable, but not surprising, given the rapid turnarounds, and just try to consider the vastly increased scale of difficulty to make a 3D open-world game with three times as many main plotlines, compared to a 2D pixel-graphics Game Boy game.
On top of all this, this time out, Scarlet and Violet are coming out in the same year as another enormous Pokémon game, Arceus, and the year after the remaking of Diamond and Pearl. Compounding it all, there’s word that the way Sword and Shield, as well as Scarlet and Violet, were developed might have introduced new issues for the team, as they tried new technology to cope with the ever-growing scale of their projects.
We know that previous Pokémon games have been made with core teams of just 200 people (although up to 1,000 once external contractors, partners, outsourcing, etc, are taken into account.) We also know, from reports regarding the creation of Sword and Shield, that Game Freak is a studio that likes to give its newest staff members big opportunities, even to the point where the “organization often changes with every game title,” suggesting each game’s team has a lot of learning to do.
It’s also hard not to wonder whether founder Junichi Masuda’s leaving the studio this year has had an impact on how Game Freak runs, given his pivotal role in the franchise since it began.
Plus, this is a company that dealt with a lot of shit from fans over the last three years, as a contingent of players were unable to contain their fury regarding Sword and Shield’s lack of a complete Pokédex, the so-called “Dexit.” Speaking to Axios last year, the company’s director of consumer marketing, J.C. Smith, said, “We have a group of creators and professionals working at the Pokémon Company that have been through a lot — seen, heard [a lot].”
Polygon reports that three different writers experienced “stunted performance,” citing, “rough, almost stop motion-like frame rates and infrequent crashing at key moments.” Other issues they mention are invisible Pokémon in battles, pop-in, and lots of clipping.
Eurogamer, meanwhile, describes the game as “ambition...betrayed by the performance.” After praising much, although suggesting that the game’s scale has reduced its detail, the site then calls the graphics and performance issues “the true arrow in Scarlet and Violet’s side.”
The largest issue EG raises is framerate drops. “The framerate drops are most evident in the towns where, unless you’re standing next to them, NPCs walk like they’re in a bad stop-motion film.” This then mixes with clipping, to create what the site calls, “a body horror moment usually reserved for the darkest of Pokédex entries.”
The site then adds,
I would be fully immersed in the game only to have an opponent’s face flicker uncontrollably, scenery jump into existence or, during a victory celebration, have the ground clip out from beneath my feet.
Over at VG247, the performance issues are called “painful,” although the reviewer decides that overall, his love for the game had him forgiving the “woeful performance and optimization options.” However, despite the “unbridled love” for the game, VG247 too raise how significant those animations and framerate problems are.
Probably the maddest instance you can see is the classroom at school, where kids sitting one or two desks back are swinging their legs back and forth or resting their head on their hand, swaying this way and that looking like a damn slide show. These characters are practically in the foreground. This stuff is present out in the open world, and it really makes an otherwise pretty good looking and polished game feel cheaper than it is.
The Guardian continues the theme, marking the game just three out of five, and citing its technical troubles. Savagely, it reports, “It’s not hyperbole to say that Scarlet/Violet is one of the worst-looking—and running—games I’ve ever played.” Also insisting that there’s a great game behind all these issues, the review notes, “Pokéballs get stuck in rocks. The frame-rate in the open world constantly judders to a crawl. City buildings shimmer like a bad Photoshop cut-job, and the ground regularly disappears under your Pokémon, mid-battle.”
GamesRadar is slightly less positive about the overall results of the more open-world approach, and it too lays into framerates, glitches, and crashes.
Crashes forced me to restart, lag and slowdown was frequent, pop-in was a constant bugbear, the loading times were testing, textures looked unimpressive up close, sprites don’t appear until you’re practically standing on them, and the game cuts frames of animation on anything too that’s too tough for the hardware – like a single, slowly-turning windmill or several people sitting calmly in a classroom.
And so it goes on in review after review. Crucially, most still celebrate the achievements of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, but all praise comes with an asterisk attached. It’s hard to know if Game Freak will be able to iron out the worst of this through patches, given that the Switch was already achingly old tech on its 2017 release. Usually we see these issues most prominently on ports from other consoles, and less so on first-party games, which tend to make the best use of Nintendo’s hardware.
However, prior to Scarlet and Violet, Pokémon Sword and Shield also suffered performance issues, but mostly when it came to its semi-open world. The issues appear to be more widespread in this latest release, which may in part have to do with the more ambitious scope of the games. This is the first time the franchise has gone fully open-world, and in general that’s a genre that Nintendo and its biggest studios are only starting to explore compared to the rest of the industry.
While it seems possible that Breath of the Wild 2 could get released alongside the long-rumored more powerful version of the Nintendo Switch, Scarlet and Violet are not blessed with the same luxury.
The games are out tomorrow, and you probably already pre-ordered them anyway.